As you slog through security lines this holiday weekend, wondering if you should join the ranks of the anonymously naked observed by an unseen TSA agent or go eyeball to eyeball with one who pats you down, and pats you up, and pats sideways and roundabout with a little probing here and there—and there!—just remember it could have been so much worse. The specific terrorist bomb plots and propaganda that brought us to this humiliating state of affairs began more than a year ago with what some cops discreetly called “the body bomb” and others, rather more coarsely, called “the butt bomb.”
In August 2009, a young Saudi terrorist named Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, claiming he’d repented of his ways, offered to surrender personally to the head of Saudi counterterrorism, Prince Ahmed bin Nayef. This intrepid suicide bomber flew on a government plane, passed through a metal detector, and actually got into the same room with the prince, then blew himself up. Video of the scene subsequently aired on Saudi television shows pieces of Asiri all over the place, including a hand and arm blown up into the suspended ceiling, but the prince escaped almost unscathed, partly because the body of the would-be attacker absorbed much of the blast.
Initial reports out of Riyadh suggested the bomb was a kind of explosive suppository, which not only prompted a lot of predictable fart jokes, but also sent a chill of fear through airline-security experts around the world. If Asiri’s bomb really had been inside him, the search process at airports today might have to include not just body scanners but CAT scans, not just pat-downs but cavity searches.
Fortunately, further investigation of the bits and pieces that were left of Asiri concluded that he’d actually had the explosives in his underwear. But, according to Saudi intelligence sources, they were very cleverly concealed between his scrotum and his anus, an area not normally touched on, as it were, in cursory airport pat-downs.
Initially there was some hope in security circles that the Asiri attack was just a one-off. As far as passengers were concerned, not a lot changed in airport security procedures last fall. Then, on Christmas Day, a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an almost identical pair of high-explosive undershorts on a plane bound for Detroit. In the event, they fizzled, but the Obama administration was pilloried for inadequate security measures. The day of the body-scanner was upon us.
Both of the underwear bombs were made by the same group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that also tried to send explosive printer cartridges by FedEx and UPS from Yemen to Chicago just last month. Indeed, the master bomb maker is thought by some U.S. officials to be Ibrahim al-Asiri, the brother of the original underwear bomber. But the Saudis have told me that he is far from the only artisan able to concoct the high-explosive substance PETN and pack it in creative ways.
It’s not like the AQAP operatives in Yemen, who work closely there with the American-born firebrand, Anwar al-Awlaki, make any secret of their intentions. The latest issue of the group’s slick online magazine, Insight, gives extensive details on the FedEx-UPS plot. It claims the whole operation cost AQAP only $4,200 and crippled air freight around the globe, even though the bombs didn’t go off.
No more 9/11s are necessary, said the lead editorial: “In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect. This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller, but more frequent operations is what some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death.”
The protesters demanding pat-downs to tie up Thanksgiving travel seem to have the idea the TSA is the enemy. That is a real mistake. There are bad guys out there, and they aim to hurt a lot of Americans, not only directly, but by forcing us all to take ever tougher and ever more costly security procedures. Until the public decides it can live with a certain level of risk, which could be pretty high, the TSA will continued to bend over backwards trying to figure out the best ways to keep passengers safe. Let’s just hope we don’t discover some day that bending over forwards is part of that picture.
Dickey is NEWSWEEK’s Middle East regional editor and Paris bureau chief. His latest book, Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009.